In 2008, World Vision and other groups worked with Congress to pass an important piece of legislation that protects a basic human value. The law prohibits our government from funding militaries that use children. Unfortunately, it also allowed some loopholes, and for the second year in a row, the Obama Administration has used that opportunity to continue funding militaries using child soldiers.
The State Department's 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report finds that six countries use children in their national militaries. Yet, the US currently gives aid to five of those six countries. In October, the administration offered a partial waiver to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and a full waiver to Yemen. In Chad, the White House said the country had made progress in ending the use of child soldiers, so the military there was given full access to all forms of aid. The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) of the newly-formed South Sudan used child soldiers during its fight for independence and continues to do so. As a new country, it does need American assistance, lots of it. But the children currently serving in the South Sudan army need to be free to go to school and play with toys not guns.
According to the White House, it needs more time to wean these militaries from their use of children. Last year, when the first round of waivers were given out, a White House spokesman told The New York Times, "Our intention is to work with them over the next year to try to solve this problem -- or at least make significant progress on it -- and reassess our posture towards them next year, depending on the progress they have made."
But four years after the law was passed, not enough progress is being made.
I understand the desire to work with militaries -- and even the temptation to overlook their moral failings -- if doing so might help protect Americans. I think the President is right to place a high value on protecting US citizens. But we can't fall into the trap of letting the ends justify the means. Sending children into war is never an acceptable means of trying to achieve some future good.
It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of children are used in armed groups around the world. Every day, children are abused and victimized. They are sent on suicide missions or forced to walk through minefields. They are defenseless, living in the company of men with guns who often do not have the child's interest at heart. It is often the most vulnerable children who are recruited or forced into the military, children who are poor, who have lost their parents, or who have already been victims of war.
I have seen firsthand that children are forever damaged by experiences of war. Our staff at the Children of War Rehabilitation Center in northern Uganda, where World Vision has worked with 14,000 former child soldiers, would agree.
The children they have cared for are the victims of one of the most brutal, evil cults in the world, the Lord's Resistance Army. Kidnapped and forced to commit atrocities, these children suffer far more than most child solders. Some of these children have been the victims of official government militaries, not just rebel groups, who recruited and trained children to fight in wars. The emotional, psychological, and physical scars last a lifetime.
As a Christian and an American, I believe the use of children to fight wars is morally wrong. It dehumanizes people created in God's image by robbing their freedom and warping their development into healthy, responsible adults. And it is morally wrong to give military support to people who abuse children in this way.
In a passage that strikes at the heart of our mission at World Vision, Jesus expressed a particular concern for children. The faith of children is an example to us. Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these." (Mark 10:13-16) Because of this special concern, World Vision focuses its work on children.
I have seen the success of World Vision's work at the Children of War Rehabilitation Center in Uganda. Boys and girls who suffer unspeakable crimes are able to return to normal life. I was at the rehabilitation center the day two boys entered, Michael and Joseph. They had heard horrible lies, told by their captors, about what might happen to them at World Vision's compound. But when they recognized the faces of other children in the camp, their eyes brightened. The celebration of 40 other children as Michael and Joseph entered the center was a joyous introduction to their new, free lives.
We thank God that we are able to help rehabilitate abused child soldiers, like Michael and Joseph. But better yet would be action that prevents children from being used as child soldiers in the first place.
That's why I think our government should refuse to deal with militaries that use child soldiers or work with them to quickly end this horrific practice. These are moral values that we must not violate. When we are willing to cross the lines of morality, we degrade our values. We must not buy into the lie that the ends justify the means.
Follow Richard Stearns on Twitter: www.twitter.com/richstearns